Desaparecidos are people who vanished without a trace and against their will. The term has roots in Latin America to describe a person who has been secretly imprisoned or killed during a government’s program of political suppression.
These abductions happen in the Philippines too.
The Philippine Constitution guarantees protection against enforced disappearances. Any arrest or detention needs to have a warrant of arrest or a court decision for a probable cause. But from the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s up to the present when we are supposedly in a democracy, cases of disappearances continue to pile up. Families are broken; children and siblings are taken away. Their loved ones are left hanging, with no explanation at all why their family member disappeared.
Documented Desaparecidos during Presidencies
Ferdinand E. Marcos (1970-1986): 789
Corazon C. Aquino (1986-1995): 821
Fidel V. Ramos (1995-1998): 39
Joseph E. Estrada (1998-2001): 26
Gloria M. Arroyo (2001-2010): 206
Benigno Aquino III (2010-2013): 19
Source: KARAPATAN files, http://www.karapatan.org
These may be numbers that evoke no meaning or emotion to some. But with each number, there is a name, a face and a story. They may be a parent, a sibling or a child. They are the desaparecidos.
Gloria Soco and Prudencio Calubid
Unknown people abducted Gloria and his uncle Prudencio along with three other people while they were en route to Bicol in 2006. One of them escaped and filed an affidavit to describe their ordeal. If not for this affidavit, Gloria’s son Ipe would have no clue about what happened to his loved ones:
Tapos ‘yun, warning shot; may nagpaputok na ng baril. Tapos tinutukan na sila sa sasakyan nila. Maraming lalaking armado na bumaba, nakatutok sa kanila yung baril. Pinapababa silang pilit… Tapos kinaladkad na sila papunta sa iba’t ibang sasakyan.
(And then there was a warning shot; someone fired a gun. Armed men emerged from the vehicles and aimed their guns on them. They forced them to leave their vehicles to transfer to theirs.)
Sa sasakyan pa lang, habang bumibiyahe, binubugbog na sila, tino-torture na sila. Mga suntok sa dibdib, sipa, kulata ng baril. Hanggang doon sa makarating sila sa isang bahay.
(While in the vehicle on the road, the armed men beat and tortured them. Punches on the chest, kicks, butts of guns. Until they arrived in a house.)
Sabi ni Antonio, nung kinaladkad daw sila, narinig daw niya si mama sumisigaw: “maawa na kayo sir, masa ako.” Pero hindi naawa yung mga militar. Sinama pa rin siya. Si nanay, hindi siya member ng kahit anong mass organization. Plain housewife.
(The witness Antonio said, when the armed men dragged them, he heard my mother shouting: have pity, sir, I am just a citizen.” But the military had no sympathy. They included her. My mother was not a member of any mass organization. Plain housewife.)
Jonas Burgos is the son of renowned press freedom fighter Joe Burgos. He was just having lunch in a mall in Quezon City between April 27 and 28, 2007 when he suddenly disappeared. Her mother, Edita, continues to search for him:
It was a Saturday. He was alone; he was unarmed. Much later on during the hearings, we found out there were a minimum of five persons who abducted him. Four men, one woman. But later on, when they dragged Jonas towards a car, there were more of them.
The Court of Appeals has concluded the case of Jonas was really enforced disappearance. And among those who abducted him, one was identified as Major Harry Baliaga, Jr. The Court of Appeals declared the Philippine Army is accountable for the disappearance of Jonas.
Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan
Karen Empeño is a UP student who disappeared in 2006 while in Hagonoy, Bulacan — along with another student Sherlyn Cadapan and farmer Manuel Merino. Her mother Connie is still following up on the case of her missing daughter:
Ini-interview ni Karen si Manuel Merino, isang lider ng Kilusang Magbubukid ng Bulacan. Kasama niya si Sherlyn Cadapan. Bale pinaka-guide niya si Sherlyn noon… Kasagsagaan ‘yun noon ng Oplan Bantay Laya.
(Karen was interviewing Manuel Merino, the leader of a farmer movement in Bulacan. She was with Sherlyn Cadapan who was her guide then. It was the height of Oplan Bantay Laya.)
Madaling araw ng June 26, 2006, dinukot sila ng ayon sa aming witnesses, mga military. Marami, napalibutan nila yung bahay. ‘Yun na po ang simula ng pagkawala ni Karen at saka si Sherlyn. Hanggang ngayon 8 years nang mahigit, hindi pa sila nalitaw.
(It was the dawn of June 26, 2006. According to our witnesses, the military abducted them. There were a lot of them and they surrounded the house. That was the start of the disappearance of Karen and Sherlyn. Up to now, after over eight years, they haven’t surfaced.)
The Initial Blow
Edita Burgos found out about the abduction of Jonas on the same day. Nanay Connie Empeno knew about Karen’s disappearance after a day. On the other hand, Ipe Soco learned about her mother a week after.
For Nanay Connie, it was through a text message from Karen’s friend. The person asked how she can be of help. Confused, Nanay Connie asked why. The friend then revealed that something happened to Karen. For Ipe, it was through pieces of paper that contained the sworn statement of the witness who escaped.
For Edita, Jonas did not show up at home when he was supposed to. They mounted a press conference and later on revealed information from a very reliable source that the military had her son. These instances started their individual roller coaster rides. It then converged to a united and desperate search for their missing family members. Days turned into weeks, months, and years. In between hearings, meetings, and rallies, they received more information about their loved ones.
How they get the strength to go through all this is beyond me. I am an activist and have heard stories for years of fellow organizers going missing. Now that I am working in the media, I still regularly encounter stories of torture and enforced disappearance of ordinary people perpetrated by their supposed protectors.
Each time I hear of a new disappearance, my heart breaks.
Worse than Animals
The United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It clearly states that no one shall experience torture or any cruel, inhuman treatment or punishment. But torture is also happening in the Philippines, sometimes side by side with enforced disapperances.
GMA News reporter Dano Tingcungco wrote a profile of Retired Major General Jovito Palparan, the man they call “The Butcher.” Tingcungco encountered the testimony of a farmer Raymond Manalo who experienced abduction and torture. Luckily, he escaped.
Manalo saw firsthand how Palparan was in charge of the military outpost where he and others were abducted. Apart from the torture he went through, he also witnessed the brutality done to Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan. Both women were beaten with wooden planks, half-drowned and electrocuted. They were stripped of clothing, burnt with cigarettes, raped, and poked with pieces of wood in their vagina. Blood was in their urine and panties.
I stopped a couple of times while reading Manalo’s story. I was crying out of anger. I never knew Karen and She personally but they did not deserve all these brutalities just because of their political beliefs. To the people who made them suffer, how do they sleep at night? How can they even look at their reflection without seeing the monsters that they are? They must answer for all these.
Karen and She are just two of countless victims of enforced disappearance and torture. There are many more untold horror stories. We may never hear most of them. These tales disappeared along with the victims.
The Emotional Turmoil
For Ipe, Nanay Connie, Mrs. Burgos and families of the desaparecidos, the worst part is the uncertainty. They are not sure what exactly happened with their loved ones. They don’t even know if they are alive or dead. Nanay Connie shares how she seems to live an empty life daily:
“Akala ko nga mamamatay na ako. Wala nang ganang kumain, wala nang ganang magtrabaho. Napakalayo ng iniisip, ‘yun ang tingin nila sa akin. Pumapasok ako pag staff meeting, ano nagagawa mo naman ang trabaho mo kaya lang ang isip mo nasa malayo.”
(I thought I would die. I have no mood to eat and to work. My mind drifts; that’s what they think of me. I would attend staff meetings. I could do my work but my thoughts are elsewhere.)
Every day, there will be that empty dining chair and empty bed. While they are prepared for the worst, they still hope their family will become whole again.
The Hole Inside
I saw tears well up in Ipe’s eyes while he recalled memories of his mother, how he misses her. I heard the voices of Nanay Connie and Mrs. Burgos crack as they tell me stories about their precious children. Yet I know I cannot even come close to the hollowness they feel inside, the void left when their loved ones were taken away.
Ipe Soco: Siya ‘yung nagbibigay kahit wala na. Kahit sa kapitbahay. Hangga’t siguro sa tingin niya may ibibigay pa siya, ibibigay niya. Hangga’t may maitutulong pa siya, tutulong siya.
(She continutes to gives even though she has none, even with her neighbors. Until she thinks she still has something to give, she will give it. As long as she can help, she will.)
Edita Burgos: But what hurts me most is that I see his brothers and his sisters sad because there are occasions and he’s not there. Bigla nilang maiisip kung andito sana si Jay, sana ganyan. Nahihirapan ako kasi hanggang ngayon miss na miss pa rin nila ang kapatid nila.
(My children will suddenly imagine if Jay was here, it would be different. I find it difficult because until now, his siblings miss him very much.)
The Unwavering Hope
It has been years since they last saw Mama Glo, Karen, and Jonas. But the families of the desaparecidos will keep on searching for them. Their struggle continues. But now they have realized the disappearances were not a personal attack. It is part of a bigger picture of human rights violation by the very people who swore to serve and protect the nation.
The families find strength and courage from each other for their struggle for justice.
Ipe Soco: Hangga’t may naghahanap sa kanila, buhay sila. (As long as there are people searching for them, they are still alive)
Edita Burgos: I don’t think we reached a point that we wanted to give up. It has never been an option. I think if Jonas returns and he learns we never searched for him, it will be more painful for him.
Connie Empeno: Magmula noon hanggang ngayon, hindi mawawaglit si Karen sa akin. Hangga’t wala akong makitang katunayan na wala na siya, patay na o ano, paniniwala ko pa rin na buhay siya. Balang araw uuwi at uuwi siya sa amin. (From then until now, I never lost Karen in my mind. Until I find evidence that she is dead, I still believe she is alive. One day, she will go home with us.)
[Entry 46, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Edma Remillano is the Manager for Advocacies for SubSelfie.com. She is also a News Writer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. More importantly, she is the owner of Edma’s Homemade Cupcakes. Life is what we make of it, or so she says. Journalism 2010, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.